How Right-Wingers Are Suppressing the Minority Vote in Georgia - and the Pushback to Expand Democracy
Pota Coston had a pathbreaking career. She was “the first black person and the first woman to serve as a special agent for the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation division in West Virginia. A decade later, she followed that up by becoming the first female manager in the IRS’ Detroit office.” More recently, she was the first black county commissioner ever elected in Georgia's Fayette County in its 193-year history; there hadn't been a Democrat on the commission for 20 years.
Coston tragically lost her battle with cancer this summer, opening up a race to replace her. The race has been marred with controversy because of how the county decided it will be held.
Fayette County recently switched to district voting – where commissioners are picked by individual districts within the county, rather than an at-large election among all voters that decides all of the commissioner in one county-wide vote. This is part of a fight against a larger trend, accelerated by the Roberts Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act, where has been a regional trend to re-instate at-large districts, which dilllutes minority representation -- part of many voting law revisions pushed by GOP-controlled legislatures that are complicating the process or erecting barriers for likely Democratic voters. The switch in Fayette County to district voting was a result of a lawsuit that the NAACP had filed arguing that at-large voting would disenfranchise the county's growing African American population.
But an appeals court has brought the case back to trial, and because the trial is ongoing, it allowed the remaining commissioners to vote 2-to-1 to reinstate at-large voting. One commissioner who supported bringing back at-large voting, its chairman Charles Oddo, commented, “I have personally not seen any rampant prejudice. I think this is a very fair county to live in.”
The local NAACP does not agree, and is considering filing an injunction to halt the county's upcoming September special election. Given the breakthrough election with Coston, it's not difficult to see their point of view – the county has a 21 percent black population, meaning that at-large, county-wide elections make it very difficult to hold any kind of sway.
Which is why, in a county elsewhere in Georgia, activists are working to to win district voting for the first time.
Gainesville And The Fight For A Latino Voice
Gainesville, Georgia is home to a booming Latino population, with the last Census estimating that nearly 42 percent of the city's people are from a Hispanic or Latino background.
The city council, however, has no Latino members.
Part of the reason for this is that the city currently uses at-large voting, which gives the 54 percent of residents who are white the ability to elect every member of the council.
Jerry Gonzalez, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, explained to me that the goal of transitioning the city to district voting and away from at-large voting wouldn't be just to elect Latinos to positions of power, but rather for the city to take the concerns of the community there seriously. “There is zero representation and zero respect for the community,” he explained. “I'm not talking about Latino representation. I'm talking about ensuring that the Latino community can elect candidates of choice. Candidates of choice can be of any race, ethnicity. Right now the Latino community is being neglected by the current elected officials, because they represent the entire city. They tend to cater to the voter-rich wards. The wards that have the most amounts of voters, the wards that have the least amounts of voters are the ones that have a large population of Latinos. So the Latino side of town has been neglected for far too long. It doesn't' matter the race and ethnicity of the candidate, as long as that person is representing the interests of the Latino community, and that's not happening right now.”
There are a number of dimensions to the neglect Gonzalez cites. Through an Open Records Request, I obtained the demographic information for the composition of the city's employees. Here's how they break down:
As you can see, despite 42% of the city being Hispanic, roughly 9 percent of the police force is Hispanic. Two percent of the fire department is Hispanic. Of the city employees as a whole, four percent are Hispanic.
While voting reform is often thought of as an esoteric or wonky issue, the statistics above show that it has very serious and immediately obvious consequences.
Reform On The Horizon
I talked to Professor Justin Levitt, a voting rights expert, who stressed that neither at-large voting or district voting is a panacea – both systems have been implemented well and implemented poorly, and the local context of why a particular system is being used is important. He did note however that after the 2013 Shelby County decision – where the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act – we saw a number of Southern counties moving to at-large voting – which smacks of trying to suppress growing minority votes in the region.
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Activism by broad coalitions in Georgia is gaining ground in combating this form of suppression.
In Gaineseville, Gonzalez's coalition has been pushing hard to see the elimination of the at-large voting system and a move towards district voting. He fully expects to see the council vote this year to overturn at-large voting.
In Fayette County, a federal judge ruled on Monday that the county must use district voting to replace Coston, a move hailed by resident Ogechi Oparah. .”"It means that we care about all of the voices in Fayette County and not just the majority of voices. It's really a win for inclusiveness and making people who live in Fayette County – and who might want to live in Fayette County – feel welcome,” said Oparah.
We've long been told that the South is a future progressive bastion, due to the rapidly changing demographics of the region. Yet it should be noted that demographics aren't destiny – not without actively engaging new voters and adopting voting systems that make their votes count. The at-large voting fights in Fayette County and Gainesville are evidence of what happens when voter suppression is actively identified and fought.